French politics today is a sore topic. Especially for the French. I keep rather fond memories of lunch conversations or perhaps arguments about outrageous decisions, scandalous speeches and worst of all: uncharismatic leaders. My father still looks back with nostalgia to that epoch he never knew but would have loved to live: the years of the Dreyfus scandal (1894-1906). Incidentally the greatest political embarrassment the country has ever been through, but at least Frenchmen were up in arms (that French spirit!) for a true cause, a noble and grand cause: defending an innocent man and battling against prejudice, anti-Semitism and the abuses of militarism. That is if one was on the “right” side.

It certainly was a time for heroics, but as I have always been on the analytical side the subject holds a different kind of fascination to me. I came across the life and work of Rachel Beer, first woman editor of two British national newspapers. One of these, The Observer, published the scoop (on Sept 18 and 25, 1898) which revealed to the world the confessions of Esterhazy, the true writer of the bordereau. Mrs Beer’s Paris correspondent, Rowland Strong, had met and befriended Esterhazy. He was then induced to meet the editor (whose sex Strong had concealed) in London. Despite his pointed misogynistic and anti-Semitic tendencies Mrs Beer managed several meetings with Esterhazy thanks to her determination and excellent command of the French language.[1] After attempting but failing to meet Emile Zola, she took up the battle from her side of the Channel, and alongside with W.T. Stead, who also considered that the Dreyfus case showed French militarism as a kind of totalitarianism,[2] sharpened her pencil and her wit to decry injustice. Rachel Beer was born Sassoon, a Jewish family originally from Baghdad, Iraq.

"A Family Supper"

“A Family Supper,” Caran d’Ache, Le Figaro (14 February 1898)

The trouble with scandal is that it is only really interesting when it is fresh. Hence the difficult work of journalists who constantly have to spark the interest of their readers with new elements and ideas, original angles of approach and of course a ready sense of humour, irony, or some intrinsic ability to rivet the reader. On the other hand they have to stay in touch with the news of the day – even if the said news is several years old and ongoing (as in the Dreyfus case). Jules Cornély compares articles to hot potatoes (or hot puff pastries which need to be eaten immediately): “les journalistes écrivent pour le lendemain. Leurs articles sont comme les échaudés, qu’il faut absorber à la sortie du four. Lorsqu’ils ont perdu la fraîcheur de l’actualité il est bien rare qu’ils vaillent grand’chose» (« journalists write for the next day. Their articles are like hot puff pastries that must be eaten as soon as they are out of the oven. When they have lost the freshness of news they are seldom worth much”).[3] Cornély wrote for the Figaro, and on May 23, 1899, when Dreyfus still animated most dinner time quarrels[4] he came up with an idea: “l’Eponge”. “passons l’éponge” is a French expression which signifies “wipe the slate clean” – “let’s forget about it” (“let’s talk about something else please?”). In a rather grandiose style (in tune with his time) Cornély borrows from Christian ideology and ends in a flourish: “Nous nous réclamons de celui qui a pardonné. Nous pardonnerons.” (“we claim to follow He who has forgiven. Let us forgive”).

Mrs Beer certainly came upon the article. And certainly wondered who was forgiving and who was supposed to be forgiven? She whetted her characteristic irony on what must have seemed outrageous from her point of view: the politics of the sponge. The literal translation does seem very strange, and she used and abused of the barbarism (seen in five of her editorials[5]), probably to show the absurdity of such an idea. I talked to an English friend about this word, sponge, which springs to mind at first as something half animal – half vegetable, and buried deep into the sea. This is his impression: “To a classically trained ear sponges had mixed connotations, being something Romans used for intimate purposes or even – in extremis – committing suicide in a manner calculated to show extreme disgust.[6] Which may explain the rare use in conversation. Bath sponges even had another name.” Wikipedia provided me with another telltale explanation: “a cellulose sponge can be a medium for the growth of harmful bacteria or fungi especially when it is allowed to remain wet between uses” (it swells to approx. 22 times its initial growth). “The Sponge”, editorial article written by Mrs Beer on Sept 24 1899, came out in the aftermath of the outcome of the trial at Rennes. Dreyfus, widely recognized as innocent, had been tried and condemned once again.

sponges2Cornély’s proposal, which smacks of household dexterity coupled with Christian principles, was taken up by the French Minister of War of the time, the Marquis de Galliffet (1830-1909), who, as a high school teacher erasing one lesson for another, advocated the wiping of the blackboard, only the sponge would and could not be cleaned. It remained, a painful stigma of injustice. The disturbing object swelled and sweltered as the verdict of Rennes fell. It was picked up by Henri-Gabriel Ibels (1867-1936), caricaturist, who represented Dreyfus crucified, while General Mercier offers him from the tip of his sword a ‘lick of the sponge’ (Le Coup de l’éponge, 1899). This direct reference to Matthew 27:48, was one of Ibels’ several representations of Dreyfus in Christ-like scenes of suffering. It completes the metamorphosis of Cornély’s innocent conjuration. Mrs Beer, who had already absorbed and reflected on Esterhazy’s confessions and behaviour,[7] effectively exposes and explodes the allegory of the sponge by presenting it at last as an object of scorn: “to the poor Republic that sponge threatens to be an instrument of ridicule and disaster.”[8]

Eloise Forestier


[1] See Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren, The First Lady of Fleet Street (New York: Bantam Books), 2011, p 218-219.

[2] in Review of Reviews Sep. 1899, Vol 20, p 254.

[3] Jules Cornély. Preface to Notes sur l’Affaire Dreyfus (Paris: édition du Figaro).

[4] Published in Le Figaro on Feb 13, 1899, p 3.

[5] June 4, June 11, June 25, July 23 and September 24 1899.


[7] “To all his reiterated and vivacious assertions – made to us and to others – of his responsibility for the bordereau, the responsibility of a soldier acting under orders, he applied the impartial sponge, and then we and others became, in his eyes, defamers of his character” The Observer, June 4, 1899, p 4.

[8] Editorial article in The Observer « The Sponge » Sept 24 1899, p 4.